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Whimbrel and Long-billed Curlew Comparison – Cibola NWR, AZ

Alex Lamoreaux|

Today, after Anna and I  finished tracking some cuckoos at Cibola NWR, we swung past a flooded field bordering the Cornfield Nature Trail area, and there was a large mixed group of White-faced Ibis, Cattle Egrets, Greater Yellowlegs, Great Egrets and Long-billed Curlew foraging there. Upon closer inspection, we also picked out a nice ‘Western’ Willet and, even better, a beautiful ‘Western’ Whimbrel!

On July 23rd, Anna and I heard and, briefly, saw a Whimbrel fly over us near the Cornfield Nature Trail at Cibola NWR, along the Lower Colorado River, here in Arizona. Whimbrel are one of my favorite shorebirds, so I was happy to get the species as a state bird, but was a little disappointed at how poor a look we got and that, basically, it was a state ‘heard bird’ only. Luckily, today we were offered fantastic views of the bird as it foraged alongside Long-billed Curlew. The Whimbrel we saw today appeared to be a female of the western subspecies (Numenius phaeopus  ‘rufiventris‘ ) based on coloration and size (this bird was the same size as the nearby male Long-billed Curlew). However, the ‘rufiventris’ subspecies has not been officially recognized as it’s own subspecies currently, and is still considered part of  the North American subspecies N. p. ‘hudsonicus’.

I have always wanted to be able to photograph Whimbrel and Long-billed Curlew side-by-side, so even though these birds were a little distant, I was very happy! Plus the lighting wasn’t too harsh yet, as it was still early in the morning. In these photos, note the striking markings on the Whimbrel’s face and crown, compared to the unmarked face of the curlew. Also note that the Whimbrel is a darker, grayish-brown color whereas curlew are more of a lighter, buffy-cinnamon coloration. The Whimbrel also has more heavily-marked underparts compared to the curlew. The Whimbrel’s bill is just slightly shorter than a male curlew’s, and it is only about half the length of a female curlews. The Whimbrel’s bill is mostly black in color, whereas curlew have pinkish bills with black color farther out the length of the bill.

Female 'Western' Whimbrel (left) and male Long-billed Curlew (right) - Cibola NWR

Female 'Western' Whimbrel - Cibola NWR

Female 'Western' Whimbrel - Cibola NWR

Female 'Western' Whimbrel (background) and male Long-billed Curlew (foreground) - Cibola NWR

Female 'Western' Whimbrel (second from left) with two male Long-billed Curlews - Cibola NWR

About the Author

Alex Lamoreaux

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Alex Lamoreaux has been an avid birder and naturalist since he was a youngster, growing up exploring the farmland and forested ridges near Hershey, Pennsylvania. He attended Hershey High School and Penn State University. Alex has worked on wildlife research projects, ranging from Whimbrel along the coast of Virginia to Yellow-billed Cuckoos in the desert southwest. Alex loves to share his knowledge of nature, as well as help to bring the birding community together to share the enjoyment that spending time in nature has to offer. Alex has helped to organize and coordinate birding events in his home state of Pennsylvania and beyond. He has traveled extensively throughout North America, Central America, and South Africa and is currently pursuing nature tour guiding, as well as continuing to refine his passion for wildlife photography.Contact Info for Alex Lamoreaux: aslamoreaux@gmail.com (717) 943-7086

  • Ben Coulter

    Very cool.  The Long-billed looks like a juvenile to me. 

    • Alex Lamoreaux

      What markings are you using to say it is a juvenile?

  • Anthony G.

    Some key points on a Long-billed Curlew that are not found on a Whimbrel are: indentation at the end of the lower mandible only found in Curlews, no center streak at top of crown, no center streak through eye, thin or no streaking on breast and bill has a gradual downward curve – not as acute as a Whimbrel’s.